A flying machine for well-heeled earthlings

A flying machine for well-heeled earthlings


As Britain’s most visible showman-entrepreneur unveiled his latest creation in the southern California desert on Monday night — a giant fantasy of a flying machine, SpaceShipTwo, that promises to take tourists out of the Earth’s atmosphere into outer space as soon as 2011 — everything was in place for the aviation equivalent of a glitzy Hollywood premiere.

Branson had the klieg lights, the sound system booming eerie space-age music, and the hospitality tents doling out free champagne and vodka cocktails right on the runway of the Mojave air and space port. He even had “celebrity” guests — everyone from Victoria Principal, of Dallas fame, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California — and countless stunning young women draped across the arms of tech geeks, engineering whizzes and assorted zillionaires. What he didn’t have, though, was the kindness of the elements. The temperature hovered somewhere just above freezing.

Driving rain gave way to howling winds of 50mph and even the occasional flurry of sleet and snow. The plastic-sheet ceiling of the marquee tent, where 800 dignitaries and guests gathered for the grand roll-out, flapped angrily in the wind, causing chandeliers and heavy speaker systems to sway dangerously.

The warm welcome Branson extended could not hope to stop the chattering teeth or ease the pain of deep-chilled bones.
Still, the VIP guests and “future astronauts” — the 300 or more people who have pledged $200,000 (£122,000) each for a place on board SpaceShipTwo and the chance to boldly go where only a handful of professional space travellers have gone before — were nothing if not gracious.

They rippled with excitement at the sight of Burt Rutan, the engineering genius who figured out how to build a craft that could re-enter the atmosphere “carefree” without the need for nerve-rackingly precise piloting by either humans or computers.
When the engineering team — a line-up of aerodynamic and machine specialists with dishevelled hair, smudged glasses and poorly fitting jeans — were introduced as “rock stars”, they got the reception to match.

By the time the great unveiling rolled around, almost nobody had any appetite to step outside and watch. But go they did — to admire the pools of purple light, the bad synthesiser music, the thumping drumbeat and, finally, the burst of white light cast over both SpaceShipTwo and its expansive carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.
“This is the sexiest spaceship ever,” Branson declared, mustering what must have been his last few drops of enthusiasm.

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